An Interview with Matt Hirschy of Equality NC: To Play Or Not To Play?

Many many bands elected to boycott North Carolina in protest of the controversial HB2 law that - among other things - stops transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Dead & Company, however elected to move forward with their June 10th, Charlotte, NY show, and use the to raise awareness and money for the organizations fighting it.

One of those organizations is Equality NC. We sat down with Matt Hirschy, the organization's director of advancement to talk about HB2, music, and how Equality NC will be at the Dead & Company show as part of the "Participation Row" social action village.

"To play or not to play", that is the question that The Dead confronted, and a lot of other bands have confronted and everybody has had a different answer. What is your view on this question that artists are confronted with who really want to be supportive.

I think it's a question that everyone deals with, whether they are artists or they are a supportive business or anything like that. I think a good starting place is Bruce Springsteen, he really kind of lit the fire and allowed everyone else to figure out what their response would be. He boycotted, but he didn't call for other folks to boycott as well and I'm glad he did that for a few reasons, number one, I think that it's great for folks to determine what makes more sense for them and beyond that they can also determine what kind of support makes most sense for them and their fans. It also allows folks to boycott if they feel that it's necessary. It's an interesting place, as a North Carolinian and a huge music fan myself, it doesn't make sense for folks to boycott from my personal perspective, but obviously it makes a big statement when they do. I would never want to push people away from North Carolina, I actually want people to come and play here and to invest here and to invest in the groups working to make change, such as Dead & Company has done, but I'm also looking for folks to do what makes sense for them and what's best for them.

Let’s talk about Dead & Company a bit. Can you tell us a little about what you plan to do at the show and if people get to meet your group at the show what you have for them and what you hope to accomplish?

We are so grateful for the opportunity to be there. We will have folks from our campaign "Turn Out North Carolina" which [serves] as a chance for folks to get engaged and effectively fight HB2, not only at a statewide level but also in their community. We'll have postcards available for folks to sign and send to their legislators, and we will hand deliver those postcards for you. When folks understand that this is not just a few people upset about this law but their own constituents, their attentions shift and it helps them understand how broad and really detrimental this issue is to the state of North Carolina.

You referenced HB2 which is what the bill is known as, for someone who may not be familiar beyond the headlines, could you tell us what this is all about?

HB2 is a very broad bill, the broadest LGBT bill in the country and that is a big talking point there but it really is true. The city of Charlotte passed an ordinance in February of 2016 that expanded on discrimination protection of the LGBT community and really was a landmark ordinance for a municipality in North Carolina. There were many other cities that have these type of non-discrimination ordinances but this was the first one that included public consolidations- this includes public businesses, or anywhere that isn't private, such as parks and things like that. In reaction to the bill, the General Assembly called an emergency session, which cost the tax payers about $42,000 and they passed a bill that was much broader than just repealing Charlotte's ordinance, they passed a bill that eliminated any non-discrimination protection for LGBT North Carolinians, that eliminated state cause of action in any discrimination claim, which means that no one can sue in state court on the basis of discrimination , they also eliminated the ability of municipality to pass any minimum wage laws or any further nondiscrimination laws and they passed a state non-discrimination law explicitly excluded LGBT people, veterans, and disabled people.

Veterans as well, interesting

That's right

Equal opportunity offender I guess. Obviously it's got a lot of national press but what's happening in the state right now over this?

It's a busy time and it's a really tough time for LGBT North Carolinians. Right now we're seeing weekly protest in multiple parts of the state, we are seeing people from small business owners to big businesses, to every day North Carolinians take up and speak out against this law. It's a really broad based coalition of people that are working to repeal the law and actually restore North Carolina's image, so it means so much to us when Dead & Company comes and HeadCount invites us to come out, we are really excited to carry this message to even broader membership.

Now there are obviously a lot of different opinions specifically about the transgender bathroom element, that there would be no way to charge someone of improper behavior in an opposite gender bathroom. What is your reaction to that argument?

While the fear may be valid for some folks, it's very much unfounded. There has never been one case of someone using this law for ill gain and actually getting away with it and there has never been a case of a transgender person attacking someone in a restroom, however, there has been cases of transgenders being attacked and especially transgender women of color face extremely higher rates of physical violence and just a general unsafe environment in their daily lives. I would also say that this law when exercised to its fullest extent, isn't even a criminal law, it's a civil law and so the worst penalty someone can endure for going into the wrong restroom is a $300 fine and a misdemeanor charge for trespassing. So if the concern is protecting women and children, I’m pretty sure they could have gone about it in a different way that also protects the transgender community. There is a lot of misinformation about this law and about the trans community and it's really unfortunate.

I saw a headline the other day the governor of North Carolina's popularity has risen since this happened. What are the political ramifications here and how does voter registration and voter turnout play into the future of how issues like this play out?

I think that our state is really under attack right now, and it's not just HB2. We've seen terrible implications for environmental concerns, voter restrictions laws, laws against access to women's healthcare and things like that so I think that voting is a really important component of this, I think that it's a product of people not voting in midterms. Beyond that it's a good opportunity and a good time for people to get engaged and take our state back to a place of prosperity. To your question about the governor’s popularity, there’s been some conflicting polls on that and i think we're going to see that North Carolina gubernatorial race is going to be the most contested in the country and so it's so important for the people to get out and vote and exercise their right to vote. It's so important to be registered to vote and to be informed about what the voting laws are because unfortunately it's an evolving state in NC and it's important to know people’s rights when they're voting so we are so appreciative of Headcount and others when it comes to voter registration.

You know the Dead community is its own thing, but certainly it seems natural the Dead community would be very supportive of the LGBT community. What are your thoughts on that?

I think at the end of the day, Dead and Company, The Grateful Dead, and The Dead community "Deadheads" really value openness, creativity, and they value the community and the idea that our country is one that should be open for all to enjoy the freedoms and the prosperity that everyone is granted under our constitution, and HB2 flies in the face of those values and that's not who we are as Americans, and particularly not who we are as North Carolinians so I do think there is a natural connection there. Music is an international language, one that speaks to everyone, so when we have these close minded ideas and this really bad legislation that limits people's freedom, it flies in the face of those values and I think it's a natural reaction for the music community to be so upset

Fans will get an opportunity to learn more about you guys when they stop by Participation Row, but for people that are not going to be at the Charlotte show can you tell us just a little bit more about Equality North Carolina and how people can potentially support you?

We are the largest state based equality group in North Carolina and the oldest in the country, we have been around since 1979. We started as a legal defense firm for people that were being convicted of crimes against nature laws, or were being kicked out of the military for who they loved. Since then we have expanded our work and we were a major part of the fight against Amendment 1 which is our state's constitutional marriage ban. We work on HIV and AIDS policy, nondiscrimination issues, racial justice and trans rights. The way to get involved right now is to really go online and sign up for our updates or reach out to us if you're interested in volunteering. You can find more at or email [email protected] if you want to find out how to get engaged.

Look for Equality NC, HeadCount, REVERB and the Time Out Youth Center in Charlotte on Friday on Participation Row, powered by Clean Energy Advisors